One of the most wonderfully imaginative developers in the business, Oddworld Inhabitants (Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath) has been a little quiet for the last few years. Its recent PSN releases indicate that the company is ready to make a move. Oddworld looks poised to shake things up in the near future, doing it with its trademark creativity and independence (naturally!). I recently caught up with company co-founder Lorne Lanning to talk about what’s going on with Oddworld, what the PSN releases mean to him, social gaming, being a creative developer in a harsh economic climate, the status of Citizen Siege, working with Electronic Arts, and more. While he didn’t say anything outright, it’s pretty clear where he thinks the gaming business is going and how he thinks Oddworld should approach it.
Raymond Padilla: First off, how are you doing? What’s new and exciting with you, Lorne?
Lorne Lanning: Doing great, in spite of the economy, which definitely makes all efforts more challenging.
We’re working on something new / something different, but we haven’t been able to talk about it yet — hope to in the not too distant future.
RP: With Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus hitting the PlayStation Network, your games have a chance to reach a whole new generation of players. How does it feel to introduce Abe to gamers that could barely hold a controller when the games were originally released?
LL: You mean, beyond feeling old?!? Beyond that, of course it’s a joy to see the fan mail from new players that have just discovered these games. A bit time machine’ish I should say. The feedback is fresh, it’s new to them, so there’s something that feels very much like it did when the games first came out. A lot of people got passionate about Abe. Now we’re seeing it again, and it’s the same vibe and reaction of newness, but a different generation. A bit Déjà to the last millennium.
When I see them write, “I remember my father used to play, but I was too young” it’s a serious testament to just how quickly time flies and how quickly the times change. We’re thrilled that the Abe games are finding a new audience, especially considering that we didn’t even foresee the future of digital distribution back when we originally built these games. I mean, most people still didn’t know what www.com meant back in ‘94 when we started building Abe. Strange how different a world it already is today.
RP: How about for longtime Oddworld fans? Is it about reconnecting with them and reestablishing the Oddworld universe?
LL: I admit that it’s surprising how many of the original fans are re-experiencing Abe and still writing to tell about it. When I think back to all of the effort and passion we put into building the games and the relentless attention to artistic details and creating mythic stories, it was much more than some considered reasonable at the time. Yet I think people can feel that in the experience, even if the tech is now low when compared to current gen.
So yes, in a way it’s connecting us to the original fan base, yet in ways that we weren’t quite expecting. But we’re thrilled to see this because it encourages our current efforts even more, in terms of standards and in terms of taking risks. The audience encourages it and it’s infectious.
RP: In 2005, you told me, “We love the games. We’re proud of them. We’re glad you’ve enjoyed them. We want to bring you more in the way we believe it can be done. We don’t want to compromise on the quality and intensity. There’s more to come.” A lot of Oddworld fans want to know what and when they can expect more. So what’s the deal on the game front?
LL: Damn web. Remember the time when people used to forget what you said? [Laughs]
We meant it, and we mean still it, but we’ve seen a number of projects stall and get put on hold due to changing climates and then the global bankster apocalypse hit town. There are huge shifts taking place in the market and we wanted to correct course for what we believed would be the most viable approach to tomorrow’s market. So we’re doing something different that is new while also spending some time getting the full Oddworld game library up on PC digital distribution.
RP: How about with Citizen Siege? What’s going on there?
LL: It’s on hold.
RP: At the time of that GameSpy interview, you seemed frustrated by many of the “growth” problems in game development. Have things improved? Or are the problems just different?
LL: I read last week that EA just laid off 1,500 more people, including bodies at Maxis, Pandemic, and Tiburon. Microsoft just nixed 600,000 Xbox Live player accounts. For the console business, I think it’s since become obvious to all that are paying attention, that things are getting worse, not better. We saw this writing on the wall in 2005, but it’s a lot worse now for developers than even we expected it to be, and we certainly didn’t have a rosy picture of it all.
However, on the digital distribution and social gaming front, things are way better than we could have expected. So while one business is rapidly proving it’s headed for the edge of the cliff, others are demonstrating an entirely new possibility. It’s the new possibilities that we’re focused on now.
RP: One of your contemporaries, Tim Schafer, had a hell of a time getting Psychonauts and Brutal Legend released. Some people would say those situations were similar to what happened with Stranger’s Wrath. Do these kinds of struggles send a negative message to game developers that want to craft something different and creative?
LL: I applaud Tim and Double Fine for persevering the climate and ultimately getting a great game out. But there are many more that aren’t as fortunate and don’t necessarily get press attention. If you open an independent game studio today that is focused on the box product business (meaning, it relies on publishers and retailers to find the audience) then I think it’s pretty clear that most people in the business would agree that you’ve lost your marbles. Fortunately, we got out of the box product business before it became as bad as it is now.
RP: Do you think things would have been better for Stranger’s Wrath if the EA Partners division was in full force back then?
LL: It’s hard to imagine how it could have been any worse.
RP: With companies like Activision pushing sequel churning to new heights on consoles, do you think outlets like PSN, Xbox Live, Steam, and the iPhone App Store are viable alternatives to “different and creative” developers?
LL: In general, yes, definitely, but the spectrum is wider than just the large DD outlets. Digital distribution opens up an entirely new possibility, but you have to start building entirely different types of gaming experiences to utilize this landscape properly, else you’ll still be eaten up by piracy or simply lack of visibility. Digital distribution doesn’t mean all of the problems are solved, but it certainly opens up entirely new ways for creatives to engage their audience directly. It also enables the possibility to start small, nurture audience, and grow larger with time.
Social gaming also shines more light on this possibility, regardless of the overall quality that’s currently being demonstrated in the social gaming landscape. As it stands, this new sector and its new business models are proving more interesting and engaging than the actual content that is being delivered. There’s a reason EA bought Playfish while in the same breath laid off hundreds more traditional development staff. The writing is — that much more — clearly on the wall.
RP: Lastly, a lot of my readers would love to know what games you’ve enjoyed in the last year or so. Any standouts and highlights you can share?